What comprises the ethos of the ALP?
Well, I would nominate the following
strands or elements. A lot of egalitarianism but at the same time a cult of the
leader. On this latter point, think of the idolatry around the Depression-era
Labor premier of New South Wales Jack Lang, the mythology around Chifley’s
leadership or the rank-and-file reverence for Gough Whitlam. Part of the ethos
in modern times – especially in State and Federal parliamentary parties – has been
one of economic modernisation: the program of the Hawke and Keating Labor
governments. Still, a benign view of public ownership – those brickyards,
airlines and power stations, or, as someone put it to me, "a naïve Fabianism" – lingered
on as part of the ethos as well. These different elements all jumble along, but
as a spirit of the party rather than
As a boy I devoured LF Crisp’s Ben
Chifley: A Biography (1961). I still remember the opening sentence: "Joseph
Benedict Chifley, who came to be numbered among the great Australians, was
first and last a Bathurst man and felt himself to be a citizen of no mean
Even as a 15-year-old I read the solemn chapter on bank nationalisation,
a policy that was uniquely Chifley’s, and the most politically clumsy and
self-defeating initiative of any Australian government in a whole century of
politics. Despite his political defeat, my generation revered Chifley for his
earth-floor upbringing. He was a worker; he drove trains and was penalised for
his union activities. We liked him for the homespun simplicity of his speeches
and for that single magic phrase, "the light on the hill", which skated over
the vagueness of that difficult and dubious socialist objective. Crisp says
that in Chifley there remained "an unabashed simplicity, albeit a grand and at
moments even a majestic simplicity, which success and place never spoilt".
Crisp is too gentle. Why did Chifley persist with the "chimera" of
bank nationalisation right into the timeframe of the 1949 election? In so doing,
he threw away any chance of re-election. Why didn’t he campaign in 1949 like a
fighting Labor leader, with some fresh promises and a commitment to end wartime
rationing? Why didn’t he settle on a political strategy of nation-building that
might have united middle-class Australia
with Labor’s working-class base?
Instead, the self-indulgence of bank nationalisation
drove the middle class away from Labor. Chifley lost power to Menzies in 1949
and the ALP remained in opposition until 1972. It all confirms Marquand’s
criticism of laborism’s notion of a party with class-specific characteristics
and a madcap "socialist objective" draped around its neck.
Chifley’s normal meal in Parliament House in Canberra was a meat pie and a slice of
fruitcake. He preferred the Hotel Kurrajong to the official residence of the
prime minister, the Lodge. Once, when he was asked to provide funds for a
national theatre company, he declined but said he might be able to find some
money to give Canberra
a first-class brass band. It’s hard to resist his charm.
Another book that educated me on Labor and Australian politics is Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W. A.
Holman and the Labour Movement by Herbert Vere Evatt (1940). The copy I’ve
got is a first edition with the signature of the author, who was then a High
Court judge, later attorney-general and external affairs minister in the Curtin
and Chifley governments, and later still (with Billy Hughes) the most disastrous
federal leader in Labor Party history (1951-60). Yet he wrote this very fine
book, a biography of William Arthur Holman (1871-1934), who was the second
Labor premier of New South Wales (1913-1917, continuing as Nationalist Party
premier until 1920).
Holman was one of the best orators of his day, an elegantly
self-educated first-generation Labor leader. His potential was stifled by the
Labor split of 1916-17, in which he supported conscription for World War I.
Filled with black-and-white fine-line drawings from The Bulletin magazine (including some by Norman and Lionel Lindsay),
Evatt’s book brings alive the seminal politics of the 1890s and the Federation
decade: the old division between free traders and protectionists giving way to
a divide between Labor and anti-Labor; colonial parliaments with substantial
policy autonomy before the arrival of a federal government in 1901; the impact
of the fledgling Labor Party, which entered parliament in 1891; and, in its
ranks, the emergence of reformism rather than socialist millenarianism.
Another character in Evatt’s book is George Houston Reid, the seventeen-stone,
roly-poly, half-comic New South Wales premier (1894-99) with a piping voice who
went on to become prime minister (1904-05). I love Reid. He was the greatest
platform orator of his day, using satire and fun. An advocate of free trade
when Australia became protectionist,
Reid is now vindicated by the recent dismantling of Australia’s protective trade
barriers. Evatt provides a generous view of Reid ("a great premier") that is
almost as important as his fond assessment of Holman.
For a journalistic account of the failure of Australia’s Depression-era Labor government, see
Denning’s James Scullin (1937; republished
in 2000 with an introduction by Frank Moorhouse). This quaint, old-fashioned
book chronicles the high hopes with which the Scullin government took power in 1929
(bad luck to be installed in office the week the New York stock exchange collapsed) and then
the nightmare of its political failure. A third of the workforce ended up
unemployed. Denning theorises that the isolation of Canberra – the bush capital – helped cause the
government’s paralysis. A factional breakaway led by "Stabber Jack" Beasley saw
Prime Minister Scullin defeated in the House of Representatives, sent to the
people, and then rejected by them in 1931. This little book (only 110 pages),
published in 1937 as Caucus Crisis,
Fortunately for the ALP’s viability, the party provided sound government
next crisis, World War II. In Curtin’s
Gift: Re-interpreting Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister (2005), John Edwards,
journalist and economist, has written the best assessment of Austra-lia’s
successful wartime prime minister and Labor hero, John Curtin. By standing up
to Churchill and Roosevelt, Curtin saved the men of Australia’s
7th Division from joining those of the 8th Division in Japanese captivity,
which would have been their fate had they been sent to Burma. But he
did not "save" Australia
nor could it be said that he created the Australian-American alliance. His
achievement, agrees Edwards, was to change Australia. And Edwards proves that
you do not need to produce a lumbering brick of a biography to explain a life;
this hard-nosed assessment comes in at 180 pages.
AW Martin’s Robert Menzies: A
Life Volume I, 1894-1942, Volume II, 1944-1978 (1993 & 1999) tells the
story of the founder of the Liberal Party. That legendary reporter Alan Reid
(we worked together on The Bulletin)
wrote about how he had written off Menzies when his party dumped him after his
first stint as prime minister in 1941. Alan used words to the effect of: "And
there he went, walking across King’s Hall…the last goodbye because there are
no comebacks in Australian politics". Yet Menzies made a spectacular comeback
(thanks to my hero Chifley and his obsession with bank nationalisation),
returning as prime minister in 1949. From that position he carved up Labor
leaders Evatt and Calwell and ruled until left unbeaten in 1966.
Martin’s biography is probably not the masterpiece of scholarship
its subject deserves, but it is scholarly. And it is rich in sub-themes that
keep a political devotee reading with pleasure and interest. Take, for example,
this entry from Menzies’ diary written in 1941 after a Brit had told Menzies
that Australians "never know when they have a great PM". Menzies agreed: "We
are parochial, jealous and ungenerous to those who serve us. The Sydney taint!" Now that
is interesting-that "Sydney taint", a reference,
from a conservative leader, to Australia’s
With the government splintering, Menzies returned to Australia in May 1941 after a long period with
Churchill in Blitzkrieg-battered London.
He wrote in his diary, "A sick feeling of repugnance and apprehension grows in
me as we near Australia.
If only I could creep in quietly into the bosom of the family and rest there".
Another sub-theme is the relationship between Menzies and the press.
These sentences come from a letter of complaint from the prime minister about
the behaviour of the Sydney Morning
Herald in 1958:
The Sydney Morning Herald has always
detested me, a detestation which I heartily reciprocate […] Its leading
articles contain in almost equal portions testiness, pomposity and a sort of
bogus intellectuality which I find hard to bear. Unfortunately they have a very
considerable influence among my own supporters […]
perpetual Australian concerns reflected in these two volumes. For example, that
of our relationships with "our great and powerful friends". If there’s
something that renders Menzies unattractive to me it’s not his arrogance (hard
to be humble in a party and a parliament of such mediocrity) as much as his
relish at leading Australia
without reservations into the Vietnam War. He was just as cavalier in "kicking
the communist can". And his support for banning the Communist Party in 1951
puts paid to any reputation he might have as a great conservative and
constitutionalist. He supported the apartheid regime of South Africa.
He was perhaps the last of the Australian Britons. It was a simpler era in
politics, and his daughter Heather Henderson has authentic and fond stories of
Menzies answering questions for a Canberra
schoolboy who went to the Lodge to research the job of prime minister for a
school project. Or her father as a boy, so anxious about his exams that he said
he could have thrown himself off a cliff. I would enjoy more accounts of
Menzies was one of the few Australian politicians – Whitlam was another – who took public speaking seriously, the
magic of timing and intonation being part of his style. I think his speech opposing
bank nationalisation, reproduced in the excellent Men and Women of Australia!
Our Greatest Modern Speeches, edited by Michael Fullilove (2005), is a
masterpiece of a parliamentary speech: not anchored in research data but
broad-brush, thematic, repetitive and powerful. The most astute, lively and
comprehensive study of the Liberal Party comes from political commentator Dr
Gerard Henderson in Menzies’ Child: The
Liberal Party of Australia,
Don Rawson’s Labor in Vain?: A
Survey of the Australian Labor Party (1966) made a big impression on me
when I was at university dreaming of how my hero Whitlam (I wanted to establish
a Youth for Whitlam movement with me as leader) would revive Labor and give us
years of a Swedish-style reformist Labor government. Rawson said the previous
ten years had been the grimmest in the party’s history, and wondered whether
the party could survive. Since the electoral setback of 1963 and disaster of 1966,
we have had the catastrophe of 1975, repeated in 1977, then of 1996, revisited
in 2001 and 2004. Is one of the functions of my grand old party to offer itself
as an electoral sacrifice?
Rawson’s book is sound political science, readable and relevant. Flicking
it open, years after I reviewed it for the student paper, I’m struck now by
this insight into the ALP:
ALP has always been a great source of drama, high and low comedy and even a
little tragedy. Even when it is a political failure-or perhaps especially at
those times-it is an unending source of human interest. It has provided a good
broad canvas packed with a great variety of incident. It abounds in examples of
nearly every human type except, of course, those who have no interest in
gaining power and influence over their fellow men. It illustrates idealism and
cynicism and the path from one to the other; it illustrates poverty and riches
and poor men who want to become rich; ignorance and wisdom and ignorant men who
seek to become wise. It shows most of the principal divisions of Australian
humanity-men and women, working class and middle class, Catholic and
Protestant, older and younger-in a magnified though also a distorted form as they
endeavour within or by means of the party to produce an environment in which
they can be content.
Exactly. Dig it out of the library.
For another Labor disaster story (this one very much for Labor obsessives
and political historians), read Robert Murray’s The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties (1970). As a young
journalist I snapped it up the day it hit the bookshops and was gripped by its
account of screaming matches and tussles at meetings of the federal parliamentary
Labor Party, the lunacy of its leader, Dr Evatt, in full bloom. The 1954-58 fissure
was the result of conflicting attitudes to communism. It was caused by the
failure of Labor politicians to develop their own indigenous response to the
threat of Marxist Leninism. One part of the party was happy to go along with "the comms"; the other extreme went for the nostrums of Catholic Action (settle
families on the land with a cow and a few hens-just like Calabria). Murray writes: "the occasional penetration of
new ideas [in the Labor Party]was apt to have a more damaging effect than it deserved
because of the hollowness at the centre".
Yes, think of Crosland’s argument that the centrists in a Labour party
needed an ideology. Back in the 1950s, the ideological weakness of the Centre
meant the party sundered, never again able to combine social reform and repudiation
of the communists. It was chronically disadvantaged as well by the incompetence
of its federal party leader. Oh Evatt, Evatt.
Another version of this story is Tom Truman’s Catholic Action and Politics (1959). I read it as a teenager with
mounting anger at B. A. Santa-maria, the organiser of the anticommunist crusade.
In 1998, when Santamaria died, I commented, ‘He was wrong about everything
except communism.’ For a more recent version of the story see Ross Fitzgerald’s
The Pope’s Battalions: Santamaria,
Catholicism and the Labor Split (2003).
Graham Freudenberg’s A Certain
Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics (1977) is a true-believing, loyalist
account of the career of Edward Gough Whitlam, the great saviour and moderniser
of Labor, who gave my generation of youngsters, bred on Labor tradition, hope
that the battered party had a future. It was then Gough’s bad luck to inherit
government at a time of world financial crisis (the first oil shock) and to cop
as well the worst cabinet to serve any federal Labor government. Oh they were
To appreciate the clumsier side of this particular Camelot, it might
be necessary to visit Michael Sexton’s The
Great Crash: The Short Life and Sudden Death of the Whitlam Government (2005)
and Alan Reid’s The Whitlam Venture (1976).
Alan Reid, whom I’ve already mentioned for his comments on Menzies, was a nicotine-stained,
typewriter-bashing journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery and of the Packer
conglomerate. His book is a 450-page account of the fall of Whitlam, with a
mean anti-Whitlam bias. It reminds us that for all Gough’s grandeur, his was an
accident-prone, rattletrap Cabinet. Even Whitlam idolaters have to acknowledge
the Khemlani Affair and the weakness of economic policy-making. And Reid
pursues them ferociously. The book is interesting for its pen portraits of the
major players, for example Rex Connor, Minister for Minerals and Energy, of
whom Reid wrote:
Built like a heavyweight wrestler and dubbed ‘The Strangler’ he wore old fashioned
suits, with crumpled trousers supported by braces. He was the antithesis of the
‘trendies’ who had become a force within the ALP […] Connor was the voice of
crude Australian nationalism […] He gave the impression of being secretive,
as well as, on occasions, of being almost boorish. If he had clearcut policies,
he lacked the ability to communicate them lucidly. Yet on television he could
convey some of the charm that was the heritage from his Irish-Australian
ancestry. More of a bush type than urban, though he came from the heavily
industrialised Wollongong area, he appeared to intimidate Whitlam, who was the quintessence of upper class suburbia and who at times gave the impression that he was not aware that Australia extended beyond the pavements of Sydney and Melbourne.
As for the
constitutional crisis of 1975, Gough wins hands down. See his 1979 book The Truth of the Matter, republished by
Melbourne University Press on the thirtieth anniversary of the Dismissal, on
which occasion I re-launched it, a great thing for a one-time teenage fan.
JA La Nauze’s Alfred Deakin
(1960) is an elegant piece of writing. It covers the most interesting and
appealing leader of the Federation era, known as Affable Alfred, and is
arguably the finest Australian political biography, charting a Victorian
political career devoted to irrigation, nation-building and social justice.
With three stints as prime minister, Deakin helped construct a policy architecture
that was to last 50 or 60 years: White Australia, protective tariffs and
a basic wage arrived at through conciliation and arbitration.
Deakin’s political achievement was to unite the non-Labor parties-previously
known as free traders and protectionists-in a new "Fusion" or anti-Labor bloc
in 1909. Like many of his day, he was a spiritualist, believing in mediums,
séances, and private written prayers. And between 1901 and 1914, even when he
was attorney-general and prime minister, he was the paid but anonymous Australian
political correspondent for the London
Morning Post. A very curious
business. He was richly well read. Before his death in 1919 he wrote, "what I
owe to books and in particular to poetry and to the literature of inspired
faith and insight ever since I could read has been and is incalculable; while
taking literature as a whole I seem to myself to have had more joy in it and
more inspiration from it than anyone I have ever met or heard of […]". Deakin
saw literature as compensation for his "trials, failures and agonies in other
spheres". Well, so can we all.
This is an extract from My Reading Life: Adventures in the World of Books by Bob Carr (Penguin, RRP $35). Proceeds from the sale of the book will go Interplast Australia and New Zealand.
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